Fort Benning's civilian employees can breathe a little easier financially. The U.S. Department of Defense said Tuesday that the number of furlough days are being cut from 11 to six.
The budget-cutting measure runs through Sept. 30, the end of the military's fiscal year, with those workers who possibly skipped a week -- not taking a furlough day -- having until then to get their required six days, or 48 hours, completed.
Teachers employed on 10-month contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity get an entire reprieve, with the five furlough days they were expected to take between the start of school and Sept. 30 now off the table. Fort Benning students returned to school Tuesday.
"We are all pleased to see the number of furlough days reduced, but we don't have the details coordinated yet when it comes to the return to normal operating hours by post facilities ... We hope to have some answers tomorrow," Fort Benning Public Affairs Officer Gary Jones said via email.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made the sudden announcement, explaining that managers throughout his department have been searching for ways to save money that will meet the $37 billion in cuts mandated this year by sequestration, while easing the burden on workers.
"This has been one of the most volatile and uncertain budget cycles the Department of Defense has ever experienced," Hagel said in a release announcing the fewer unpaid days for civilian defense staffers. "Our fiscal planning has been conducted under a cloud of uncertainty with the imposition of sequestration and changing rules as Congress made adjustments to our spending authorities."
About 4,000 civilians earning a paycheck at Fort Benning have been impacted by the furloughs, which went into effect the week following the Fourth of July holiday. The move was projected to save $8 million on the infantry and armor training installation, with the Army as a whole saving $1.8 billion.
The post projected its staffers would lose $400 to $700 per month, depending on their specific job and based on a reduction of 16 hours in salary every bi-weekly pay period.
The austerity measures rippled throughout Fort Benning, with the commissary closing on Mondays, Martin Army Community Hospital patients seeing longer waiting lines and different hours, and military personnel possibly picking up some duties performed by civilians.
Martin Army public affairs chief Terry Beckwith said she hoped to have more answers Wednesday on how schedules will change for the balance of this fiscal year. As the furloughs began, the hospital closed its pharmacy on Saturdays, while North Columbus Medical Home at Brookstone Centre -- which it operates for military families living on the city's north side -- closed every Friday.
"We are working with our human resources department to bring our employees back to work as soon as possible," Beckwith said. "But each employee does have to do the 48 hours. The details on that will be forthcoming."
Martin Army serves about 54,300 local residents, with more than 2,500 daily visits to clinics. It has a staff of 2,070, with 1,274 of those federal civilian employees, another 143 contract civilian workers, and 653 soldiers. Aside from the hospital, the Medical Activity operates satellite medical facilities at a Ranger training camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the Ranger camp in Dahlonega, Ga., and in Anniston, Ala., near the now-closed Fort McClellan.
Hagel noted in his message that the Department of Defense remains under pressure with fiscal year 2014 less than two months away and the prospect of more cutbacks and furloughs should Congress not come up with a way to avert some or all of them. An additional $52 billion in cuts are required in the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. That's about 40 percent more than the $37 million in the current fiscal year.
"Facing this uncertainty, I cannot be sure what will happen next year, but I want to assure our civilian employees that we will do everything possible to avoid more furloughs," said the defense chief, thanking them for "their patience and dedication during these extraordinarily tough times."
Federal workers initially faced up to 22 furlough days this year. But with the military massaging its budget, that was sliced to 11 days heading into July.
Hagel said the effort to find other ways to save Defense Department money also was aimed at "minimizing mission damage." He pointed to cuts in maintenance and training missions, fewer deployments, and hiring freezes that, in his belief, "seriously reduced military readiness."
In the last few weeks, the department’s managers and planners ultimately found more cost savings in various areas, including moving equipment out of Afghanistan, with the military downsizing there in a major way. Some money has been transferred between agencies and services, he said, while Congress in late July approved the movement of money from acquisition accounts to those funding day-to-day operations.
The end result for civilian employees at Fort Benning and elsewhere — an extra week of pay in their pockets, money they would otherwise have forfeited by the end of September.